Sunday, May 29, 2011

May 29, 2011: Saint-Hilaire du Touvet - Hiking Up and Down, Parapente

Oh French breakfasts. Even though we were going to be spending the day outdoors in sporty pursuits, much like the majority of the B&B guests, breakfast was the usual light fare for France: bread, more bread, croissant and yet more bread. With juice and tea or coffee. And butter and jam. I ate as much bread as possible, and then we found a grocery store so that we could get a little additional protein and fruit to keep us going. We picked up enough to make ourselves a sandwich lunch, and then we were off.

Today we headed up into the escarpment that towers above Saint-Hilaire. If we were really ambitious it seemed like there might be a way to get to the top, at which point we'd be getting up into the Chartreuse area. But we weren't quite that ambitious. The trail was a lot of up. And more up. With eventually some across, which was more scenic and enjoyable. Along the way we passed a rowdy group of French partiers, who offered us drinks as we hiked past. We declined - it wasn't even lunch yet! Eventually we hiked back down again - not an entirely satisfying loop, but at least the up was a welcome change from the unrelenting down of the day before.

So for the rest of the afternoon we relaxed - hanging out on the hillside watching the parapentes glide by. Today the wind conditions were ideal for take-off, so there was a constant stream of parachutes inflating and dropping over the precipice. Some very skillful parapenters were even doing tricks in the sky, managing to swinging about in sommersaults.

We passed an adorable family of sheep as we started our hike

Another glorious day of sunshine

A stone wall along the path through the forest - seems like a huge amount of effort, but maybe it was more of a major roadway in the past?

The white stones of this dry stream bed reminded me of large bones

Parapente drifting past the village church

Parapentes taking off over the precipice

There may be two people up there together - an instructor and a neophyte?

We could watch the parapentes for hours, peacefully sailing through the sky

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28, 2011: Saint-Hilaire du Touvet - Hiking, Down, Funicular, Pork Ribs

For Mark's birthday weekend I planned a last-minute get-away to Saint-Hilaire du Touvet. It had the advantage of being fairly easily accessible by TransIsère bus. It is also well-known as a destination for parapente (paragliding) so I figured that might make it a lively place to visit. I'd had a brief glimpse of its location, up in a dramatic escarpment (hopefully with good hiking), on our trip to Albertville earlier this week. There is also a funicular railway, which seemed pretty unique. And it looked like the weather would be fantastic.

So we were off. We packed hiking gear, clothing, and that was about it. I'd arranged for us to stay at a gîte, which was essentially a bed and breakfast. We got on the bus (after a bit of difficulty trying to find the right change for the driver - he patiently waited while we asked around at the bus stop to see if anyone had change). The drive was fairly dramatic as we got close to the village - there was a long one-way tunnel for which the bus had to sound its horn, to warn any cars at the other end not to enter until we were through.

The wind today was apparently not quite right for parapente take-off from the village. But we did see several people learning how to use the parapente in the practice field. You wait for the wind to fill your parachute, then start running - and if you were at the edge of a precipice, you would run right off the end and glide through the air. There are two take-off areas in Saint-Hilaire. It's a perfect spot for it, since it's high on a plateau on an escarpment with a steep drop-off. There's yet another escarpment up beyond Saint-Hilaire, and we saw some parapenters up in the air there, so there must be another take-off point we never encountered.

We had an easy hike through a wooded area, seeing the remains of an old mill and a smallish waterfall. Then we came back and decided to hike down the escarpment, so that we could take the funicular back up. St-Hilaire got its first claim to fame as the site for a tuberculosis sanitorium. The air is fantastically clean and clear - I can see why it was chosen as the location. A funicular railroad was built up the "least steep" portion of the escarpment in order to provide access. Even so it has the steepest track of any funicular railroad in Europe, with an incline of 83%. The car is built like a staircase, with the rows of seats steeped up on an angle.

The sign at the beginning of the trail said it would take 1.5 hours to reach the bottom. It was just 1.5 hours until the last funicular departure, so if we didn't get there in time we would be stuck having to walk all the way back up again (about 800 m). My experience so far with French hiking signage was that time estimates were conservative, so I was fairly certain we could make it down in about an hour. We started down the very steep trail (at times it was a set of steps next to the tracks, at other times switchbacking through the trees). The further we went the more we questioned our wisdom (or Mark questioned my optimism), as there were no distance markers to tell us how close we were getting to the end. We picked up speed, going faster and faster until suddenly Mark stopped, feeling quite ill. It was probably just the exertion, but I joked that we'd descended so quickly that we'd given him the bends. We took a short break at the remains of a château, then kept going, only to find that we were, in fact, close to the base. As it turned out we'd made the descent in just 45 minutes.

Taking the funicular back up was a pleasant break from hiking. The train at the bottom is counterweighted by the train at the top, running on one single track except at the halfway point, where the track splits in two so that they can pass each other. The incline is truly impressive - you get a real feeling of vertigo looking off the back of the car to the descent below. At one point the escarpment is just too steep, so the builders had to make a tunnel to lessen the angle. It really is an impressive achievement, but when it was built in the 1920s there was only a narrow mule track to the village, so you can see why the effort was justified.

After dinner at the funicular restaurant (mmm, pork ribs) we wandered about trying to find the juggler's festival. There were flyers, but we didn't have any luck figuring out where the park was that it was being held in. For a small village it still held some mysteries.

The take-off for parapenters

A graphic warning about not getting too close to helicopter blades (I love the carefully drawn sectional views showing glimpses of sliced organs, especially the tops of the lungs - surprisingly accurate!)

Getting started with parapente

The plateau fields and the escarpment up beyond St Hilaire

The fields were filled with flowers and animal life (including ticks, as I found one two days later attached to my shoulder - ugh; luckily he was still tiny, so it seems he must have just latched on after riding around in my clothing)

Mossy stream

Remains of the mill

The waterfall - not much water, but a dramatic drop

Almost a waterslide at this point

One of the steeper portions of the funicular track - the fellow on the suspension bridge above is climbing the via ferrata trail

Mark walking down the trail steps alongside the funicular track

Crumbling château remains

At the base, looking up at the funicular track (you can see the tunnel entrance in the middle of the photo)

The split at the midway point for the trains to pass each other (you have to wonder how reliably each train always chooses its appropriate track - hopefully it's foolproof)

Friday, May 27, 2011

May 27, 2011: Grenoble - Bonne Anniversaire Mon Mari, Happy Strontium, Tree of Life

Today was Mark's birthday, so I made him a birthday cake - our now-standard chocolate fondant banana "brownies" with icing on top. I couldn't resist geeking out with a chemistry theme, so I made Mark's names out of chemical elements, and wished him a Happy Strontium (since it's the 38th element).

After dinner we went out to see the new Terence Mallick film "Tree of Life", which had just recently been well-received at the Cannes Film Festival. Very strange. A strange mash-up of science explains the beginning of the universe with family drama. But there's no real drama in the end. Can't say I'd recommend it, but it was a unique experience.

I'd like to point out that, had anything other than brown and pink icing been available at the Monoprix, I would not have decorated Mark's "cake" with a girly colour

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011: Albertville - Conflans, Wood Turning, Olympics

Another outing today with the Sweet Home Grenoble group. Today's destination was Albertville, most famous as the site of the 1992 Winter Olympics, but also home to the well-preserved medieval town of Conflans.

We started our visit with Conflans. It was a bit of a sleepy town compared to the historic villages I visited in Provence, but also nice in that it wasn't so intensely touristy. Yet it also felt more genuinely lived in than Pérouges, probably due to the nearby city of Albertville just down the hill. We had a nice walk around admiring the old buildings. There were many interesting medieval signs, the kind that use pictures rather than words. It seemed like many of them were just for decoration, rather than demarcating actual stores or restaurants that we could visit.

But we did have the chance to visit one nice shop, run by a woodturner. I bought a beautiful bowl, which he told me was made from wood that had been growing on Conflans ramparts - it was cut down in order to improve the view of the valley below. We also had lunch in the charming town square. If the museum had been open we would have visited it as well, but it was closed for the typical long French lunch.

So we moved on to Albertville itself. You can see the evidence of the Olympics, as there are a number of newer streets, plazas and government buildings than I've seen in the downtown of most French cities, but it is all still put together in a charming way. One interesting aspect were the murals on building walls. Unlike Lyon where the murals are very elaborate and eye-catching scenes, these were more subtle, mostly architectural details embellishing what would have otherwise been blank walls and dull spaces.

The Albertville Olympics museum was interesting to visit. I must not have seen the opening ceremonies for these Olympics, because I'm sure I would not have forgotten the crazy costumes. There was a long documentary about the production of the opening ceremonies, with behind-the-scenes information about the costumes, the choreography, the music - all of it clearly cutting edge, avant garde art in 1992. It actually doesn't look too dated yet - just bizarrely entertaining.

Archways over stepped passageways within Conflans

The Cat's Boot - this would be a pub I suspect, rather than a shop...

Presumably Conflan's original castle, although there were several tall towered buildings in the area

A church with interesting exterior painted decoration

The church's interior

One of several fountains

We walked up the hill to try to get closer to one of the castle-like buildings, but our way was barred

Would this be a sign for a locksmith? Or perhaps the Key to Your Heart dating service?

A view of Albertville below

The view was from a lovely vine-covered enclosure

Costumes of the Albertville Olympics

The "Microbe Dancer" costume!

I could not figure out why there was a Coke can sitting in the ice cream case until I realized each type had a representative sample of the flavour (strawberry, lemon, pear, cola)

Two of the many murals enlivening blank building walls

Downtown Albertville

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25, 2011: Grenoble - St. Laurent Crypts

Today I finally visited the St. Laurent Crypts. I had been waiting for this archaeological museum to re-open to the public, and it finally did a few weeks ago. What a great place - this may well be my favourite museum that I've visited in France. Its website is also bizarrely difficult to turn up in a Google search, so here's the link.

The museum is built at the site of a long-standing burial ground in Grenoble, in use since the 5th century AD, when Grenoble was Cularo, a Roman colony. There have been a series of churches on the site through the centuries, and there is still one there today. However, a few decades ago it was realized that the archaeological importance of the continuous record of burial practices outweighed the significance of the church. So the church was deconsecrated and they dug right through its floor to uncover the burials beneath and around it. They've just recently expanded the museum with a great contemporary addition of stairs, platforms and protective covers that allows visitors to get up close to all the finds.

The museum was free, and there was an excellent audio guide in English. There was also a video detailing the history of the site and interactive touchscreens with more information at various stations, so I had the opportunity to learn far more than I have at some other museums in France. And the architecture is quite bold - the juxtaposition of old and new, and the willingness to let visitors get so close to these very unique finds. I loved the way the 3D animation started off by explaining that belief in the afterlife was a natural consequence of early human society's uncertainty and difficulties - you would never have heard that kind of explanation in a museum housed in a former church in America!

The museum visit starts with an audio voiceover describing the various churches throughout the centuries - their outlines are mapped out on the archaeological remains under the church's former floor by different coloured lights

Standing only inches above human remains

Carvings from the church, made with local "molasses" stone - too soft to withstand the weathering outdoors any longer

The church's painted ceiling

Contemporary glass staircase floats through an ancient stone tunnel

Reconstruction of a statue

Burials - some under terracotta roofing tiles, others in pits dug in the earth - only the rich had solid stone tombs to protect their remains

The sense of the passage of time is overwhelming - this slice down through the burial grounds reveals gnarled tree roots, pottery shards, and numerous human bones poking out of the earth

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 2011: Grenoble - Catching Up

Well, it's time to catch up on the backlog of photos from this past two weeks of traveling. Although I've been making a blog entry for every day of our sabbatical in France so far, I think from this point I'll just post for days where we've got photos from outings/trips/special events - the rest of daily life has become fairly routine by now. So, as I catch up you'll be able to read on!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22, 2011: Paris/Grenoble - Green Roof, Couscous, Bercy, Green Wall, Architecture, TGV

For our last day in Paris Mark and I wanted to get away from some of the major attractions. So we took the subway out to the east side for a visit to the Palais Omnisports.

This sports stadium has an impressive 45 degree sloping green wall/roof encircling the building (as well as a flat green roof on top, which can't be seen from the ground). It's pretty impressive - if it was just concrete it would be massive and forbidding, but covered in grass it's welcoming. There was also an interesting inverted fountain/waterfall/canyon feature nearby by Gérard Singer - we weren't clear on whether it was just decorative or served some practical water retention/purification purpose, but its shape was striking.

After walking through the nearby Parc de Bercy, which had lovely contemporary landscape design, we went for lunch in a neighbourhood café. At last - we have discovered the spicy food of France - and it is couscous! The restaurant was such a local establishment that they didn't have a real "carte", just a hand-written list of standard French fare on a piece of paper when I asked for it. When I went to order, they mentioned that they had couscous that day, and would we like to have that instead. I agreed, and I'm glad we said yes. There was tasty grilled meat on a skewer, root vegetables and onions, and a spicy broth that the waiter demonstrated how to ladle on (unlike all our other Parisian meals, this one was entirely conducted in French).

After lunch we visited the Village of Bercy. This should have been an interesting mix of restaurants and shops in a semi-industrial area of restored former wine warehouses, much like the Distillery District in Toronto. But instead it was a row of aggressively marketed at tourists restaurants and chain stores with nothing really unique to sell. I can't understand why they haven't encouraged artist's studios and merchandise that's unique and handmade. It wasn't far off of a mall experience, save for the interesting old brick architecture.

We headed back into the heart of the city to the Musée du Quai Branly to see the famous green wall by Patrick Blanc. Unlike the Palais Omnisports, this one is a vertical wall, and it's also more than just grass - it has a fantastic variety of flower, greenery and small bushes growing out from the wall. I was not disappointed - it's pretty amazing.

Continuing with our green theme we went to see the exhibition "La Ville Fertile" at the Cité de l'Architecture. There were many inspiring landscape architecture projects on display, although in the end the abundance was overwhelming. It might have been more instructive to have fewer exhibits with more in-depth information. But I was excited to see some projects that I was familiar with, such as the High Line Park in New York City, and the riverside parks in Lyon where so many people enjoyed hanging about.

And at last it was time to head home to Grenoble on the TGV. We got to the Gare de Lyon early and had a light supper in the train station café. In spite of the fact that it's a full-service establishment I still had to pay to use the washroom. This would not have annoyed me so much (although I do think that if you're serving food and drink you should be obligated to provide free facilities) if there had been an attendant to take the money. But instead it was a coin-operated entry, and I didn't have the correct change. Not to worry - there's a machine to make change - except it wasn't working! There was an attendant who told me that it wasn't working - but it wasn't his job to fix it, just to clean the facilities. So I was stuck until I went back upstairs to find our former waitress (who wasn't very interested in us now that we'd finished paying for dinner) to try to tell her that I needed change for the toilets. Which is surprisingly difficult to figure out how to word in French when she tells you that there is a machine that gives you change already. In the end I prevailed.

But there's nothing to complain about with the TGV. As usual we boarded on time, traveled comfortably and smoothly, and arrived in Grenoble a scant three hours later. Paris was nice to visit, but we're happy to be back home!

The Palais Omnisports green roof/wall...

...and the lawnmower that cuts it!

Gérard Singer's fountain/canyon/waterfall feature

A great undulating wooden bridge across the river

Parc de Bercy, well-used by kids and pets on this beautiful, sunny day

Bercy Village's street of restaurants

Mysterious sculptural heads peer out of windows at Bercy Village

Mark makes a friend...

Musée du Quai Branly green wall

The wall is amazingly tall - it's hard to imagine how they keep it all evenly watered over this expanse, but there was very little water dripping off at the bottom

We passed by the Eiffel Tower - nice to be able to take pictures with blue skies behind, unlike the day before when it was so overcast

La Ville Fertile - the exhibition started with an indoor garden/jungle installation

Gare de Lyon train station

Le Train Bleu restaurant